Professor, policy advisor, voice of reason: Timothy Caulfield ('87 BSc, '90 LLB) wears a lot of hats, both in his formal role as an academic as well as through his efforts to bring some of the world's biggest pop cultural influencers under the microscope for their counsel in matters of science.
His journey at the University of Alberta began as an undergraduate student in psychology. "In my undergrad, I was really interested in brain chemistry and brain biology, which are actually huge right now, so maybe I should have stuck with that," he notes with a laugh.
A growing interest in policy inspired him to pursue a career in
health law. “I was always attracted to the controversial topics, so that’s
what drew me to law school. I wanted to be able to argue with facts.”
By day, Caulfield is a professor in both UAlberta’s Faculty of Law
and School of Public Health. He’s also the research director of the
University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute (HLI), where he examines
health law and science policy using an evidence-based approach.
Off the clock, however, Caulfield is the voice of reason for popular
health and science, largely through his active presence in the media
and on Twitter. He has also authored two books on the intersection of
science and pop culture: The Cure for Everything: Untangling the TwistedMessages about Health, Fitness, and Happiness, and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.
The latter of these has dominated the mainstream media following its
Canadian release in January and May release in the U.S.
“Debunking, for me, is both fun, and I think also really important,”
says Caulfield. With the right mix of humor and hard facts,
Caulfield’s commentary on pseudoscience and celebrity influence has
elevated him to one of the biggest voices in Canadian science.
“Celebrities really do have an impact,” he explains—and the
reasons are complicated. “I don’t think for the most part people even
realize that they are being influenced by them [celebrities]. I don’t
think people consciously make the decision to turn to someone like
Gwyneth Paltrow for health advice, but she represents this image,
this lifestyle that people can relate to.”
Fighting snake oil with science
It seems ironic that in the 21st century—a time when accurate
information based on real research is often just a click away—people
are so quick to trust the endorsement of unqualified individuals,
often at face value. At the same time, mistrust is rampant when it
comes to critical social issues like vaccinations and global warming.
"When everything sounds like magic, it can be easier to accept the bogus stuff along with the evidence-based science."
“Information is so free right now,” says Caulfield. “I think,
though, that there is an erosion of trust. People are suspicious of
‘Big Pharma’ and ‘Big Food’. There’s a fear of industry and potential
corruption. What people forget is that those issues don’t make the
scientific process wrong. They highlight the need for good independent
The science is there, but it’s confusing at best, if not contradictory.
“Science is becoming so complicated. It used to be that, say, we build an airplane—and you could explain the mechanics of it, how it works,
and people could understand that. Now, you talk about stem cells and
neuroscience, and it sounds like magic,” explains Caulfield. “So you can
see how when everything sounds like magic, it can be easier to accept
the bogus stuff along with the evidence-based science.”
And there, he says, lies the real issue. In a recent UAlberta study
out of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, researchers Mike Allen,
Mike Kolber (’92 BSc), and Christina Korownyk (’98 BSc) looked at
two televised medical talk shows, Dr. Oz and The Doctors, to record the
recommendations made in each episode. They then followed up on
the strongest recommendations to determine if there was evidence
to support the claims. The results were telling—only about half the
recommendations on The Doctors and just one in three of Dr. Oz’s
recommendations could be supported by believable scientific evidence.
“There’s this phenomenon that I like to call medical and stem cell
tourism, where people take an exciting aspect of science—something
that’s legitimately ground-breaking and amazing—and then they
take that science and make a bogus product from it.” Many of these
originate in legitimate science (for example, the modest benefits of
drinking green tea), and then create an unsubstantiated, supposedly
health-improving product from it (like green tea diet pills).
"People take an exciting aspect of science—something that’s legitimately ground-breaking and amazing—and then they take that science and make a bogus product from it.”
Some of the “science” is fairly obvious to the average person.
When Gwyneth Paltrow recommended an intimate V-steam treatment
to cleanse the uterus, for example, plenty of eyebrows raised
among even her most devoted followers. However, less dramatic
treatments like undergoing a cleanse or adopting a particular diet
may seem like reasonable alternative health care options, particularly
when there is a low perceived risk of adverse effects.
“People will argue, for example, that although homeopathic remedies
have never been scientifically proven to work, at least they aren’t harmful.
That still doesn’t change the fact that they are proven not to work.”
On a highly visible platform like Twitter, Caulfield’s outspoken
stance on celebrity pseudoscience leaves him open to criticism as
well. “I don’t mind when people attack my ideas,” he stresses. “What
I do mind is when people say that I’m narrow-minded. I’m actually
very open-minded—if I have an idea about something, and you can
convince me that I’m incorrect using evidence-based arguments, then
I will change my opinion.”
He encourages informed individuals including students to add
their own voices to the conversation. “Social media is not going away.
Get involved, be part of the discussion, and strive to be as scientifically
accurate as you can. Use the best available evidence.”
As far as Caulfield is concerned, he is happy to continue fighting
the good fight—both online and in shaping science-informed policy.
His advice for those just starting out on their careers: “I know this is
a horrible cliché, but it’s true for me—love what you’re doing and love
the journey. Enjoy the opportunity to learn. When you excel, the opportunities
emerge, so find something that you love, and excel at it.”